« Send Round The Hat | Main | 29 - Suffer The Little Children »

The Scrivener: Beware Of The Fiend-Scathe!

"If, as some people believe, the Bible is the literal Word of God, it seems rather odd that there is disagreement among translators about what some of God's words actually mean,'' writes Brian Barratt.

The writer of the book of Isaiah, in the Bible, knew of creatures that we no longer see around us (but they might be behind the dark). In chapter 34, verse 14, we read:
And the wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wolves, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, the night-monster shall settle there, and shall find her a place of rest.

That is from the Revised Version of the Bible. Other translations have different terms for satyr including wild goat, hairy goat, hairy one, goat demon. Satyr is probably the best word as it relates to the ancient Semitic idea of a demon which lived in the desert. In early Greek myths, a satyr was a vulgar man with a horse's tail and ears and an erect penis. Later, it was a man with a goat's legs and tail. Either way, oh dear me, a naughty creature.

If, as some people believe, the Bible is the literal Word of God, it seems rather odd that there is disagreement among translators about what some of God's words actually mean. Night-monster raises such a problem. Some translations have it as screech-owl.

John Wycliffe called it Lamia in notes on his 1382 translation of the Bible:
...ther shall lyn Lamya (Notes: ...that is, a thirs or a beste hauende the bodi like a womman and horses feet).
Lamia was a female demon who drank blood and ate children. Wycliffe wrote that it is 'a thirs or a beast having the body of a woman and a horse's feet'. That's a long way from a screech-owl!
'Thirs' comes from Old English ğÿrs (thyrs), which denoted a giant or demon. It later became 'thurse'. In the classic Scandinavian saga of 'Beowulf', committed to writing in Old English over 1,300 years ago, the hero has to deal with a thurse:
Ond nu wiğ Grendel sceal, wiğ şam aglæcan ana gehegan ğing wiğ şyrse.
'And now with Grendel I must, regarding the monster, alone settle things with that thurse.'

Apparently, the most widely found Unperson in mythic ancient times was the Ettin. In Old English, it was the eoten. There are related words for it in several Scandinavian languages:

- The Old Norse equivalent survives in modern Icelandic as jötunn, giant;
- Danish has jette;
- Norwegian has both jette and jotun, with jotner in mythology.
- Swedish has jätte.

They are mentioned several times in 'Beowulf', e.g:
hanon untydras ealle onwocon
eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas,
swylce gigantas
'Then woke all evil broods: etins, elves and goblins/monsters, and also giants.'

They also appear in Layamon’s 'Brüt', written in about 1200:
tha comen thære twenti eotendes longe, muchel and stronge
'there came there twenty giants... tall, huge and strong'.

Another descriptive word denoting a monster was 'fiend-scathe'. In Old English it was feondscağa, wounding fiend, and in Middle English it was feond-scağe, evil enemy. Of all these old words for the Unpeople, it is the one which threatens us most because we can understand pretty well at first glance what it means.

Take care, gentle reader, when you stroll through the woods, or along a rocky coastline, or in some lonely desert place, particularly at twilight. You know not what Unpeople are lurking there behind the dark.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013

To read more of Brian's irresistible columns please click on

And do visit his engaging Web site


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.